The head of the industry body that represents the nation’s TAFEs has described the system as “broken” and says serious reform is needed.
- Industry, teachers and advocates say many of Australia’s TAFEs are showing the impacts of decade-long under-funding
- They say the $1 billion JobTrainer program is not enough to undo years of damage
- Industries like metal fabrication say course content is two decades old and apprentices say equipment is past its use-by-date
TAFE Directors Australia chief executive Craig Robertson believes curriculums around the country, called National Training Packages, have created too much red tape for teachers and made it impossible to respond to local needs.
The packages are supposed to be written in consultation with industry but critics say they are being hampered by bureaucracy and industry is being locked out.
“It has become very centralised,” Mr Robertson said.
“It is not fit for purpose for a modern economy, and they’re going to be even less fit for purpose with the economic changes coming out of COVID,” he said.
His concerns are being played out in areas like welding.
Curriculum behind the times
Geoff Crittenden says the welding curriculum is very out of date.(ABC News: Jerry Rickard)
Geoff Crittenden, chief executive of industry group Weld Australia, said the current welding curriculum was written in 1998 and had changed little since.
Apprentices, for example, were still required to spend 250 hours learning oxy acetylene welding, a technique barely used in industry anymore.
“I look at the equipment and it’s a bit like stepping into a museum,” Mr Crittenden said.
“It’s easier to just use the same material time and time again than start afresh.”
Mr Crittenden said he would like to see the curriculum updated to equip apprentices for the future with content such as robotics and big data.
This would also help Australian firms better compete for international manufacturing contracts.
“Internationally our rugby teams are better than our welding teams,” he said.
Jason Elias says it takes 12 months to get his welding apprentices “up to scratch”.(ABC News: Jerry Rickard)
His concerns are echoed by employers like Jason Elias, who runs a Sydney specialty welding business.
A former TAFE teacher himself, Mr Elias said he has been watching the quality of TAFE facilities and apprentices decline over the past decade.
“We have to now set up in-house training facilities and teach them the additional requirements needed,” Mr Elias said.
“It would take us another 12 months minimum to get them up to scratch.”
He estimated he will need at least 40 new welders over the coming decades and nationwide it is estimated Australia will need at least 400 more just for defence contracts in the next decade.
“The government is spending on all these projects: infrastructure, defence welding is a key focus,” Mr Elias said.
The system, funding to blame
Underfunding is taking its toll on TAFE, says the president of the Australian Education Union.(ABC News: Dan Cox)
Industry experts agree it is not the students’ fault, nor is it teachers or even individual TAFEs.
It is a question of funding.
Nationally, funding for the entire vocational training sector has declined from highs of $7.6 billion in 2012 to $6.1 billion in 2019.
While part of those figures reflect some rorting of the former VET-FEE-HELP scheme, Australian Education Union president Correna Haythorpe said chronic underfunding had taken its toll.
“There’s no doubt that with funding cuts, that there is a direct impact on the courses that can be provided in terms of meeting industry needs,” she said.
The announcement of the Federal Government’s JobTrainer program sounds like a massive injection $1 billion split between the states and Commonwealth.
But that is for the whole public and private training sector and many fear that will not undo years of underfunding at TAFE.
“The announcement of JobTrainer has been particularly disappointing,” Ms Haythorpe said.
Mr Robertson said when divided up, the new money equated to less than $3,000 for each student, which is barely enough for one basic TAFE subject.
It will not be adequate to replace the majority of the 140,000 four-year apprenticeships lost in recent years.
“What we’ve really got to be able to make sure that we can do is help the person who wants a longer course, to really prepare them for their career,” he said.
Michaelia Cash says the Government is trying to simplify the training system.(ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)
In a statement, Skills Minister Michaelia Cash said a lack of transparency from the states and private providers in how training funding had been used in the past was “a serious concern”.
She said the Government was focused on simplifying training which was “currently marred by inconsistencies and incoherence, with little accountability for outcomes”.
Senator Cash said the Federal Government’s share of training funding had been increasing over time.
Under JobTrainer the states can only access funds if they sign up to a new reform agreement and funding will only go to accredited courses in areas of need.
“The exact number of places will depend on the mix of training, which is subject to agreement with the States and Territories,” Senator Cash said.
Back to basics
Graeme Elphinstone says apprentices “battle to read and write”.(ABC News: Alison Branley)
Graeme Elphinstone has spent 40 years hiring apprentices at his trucking and weighing systems business in Tasmaniaand said his issue with skills training is that potential apprentices no longer arrive with even the basics.
“They battle to read and write when they come to us, let alone do maths,” he said.
“We have to do a lot more training in-house to get apprentices to where we want them.”
He is not alone. Figures show employer satisfaction with training has fallen nearly 10 per cent in the past decade.
“Just get the basics right,” Mr Elphinstone said.
“If we have to teach them how to read and write before we can get them doing the trade that just makes our job so hard.”
TAFE Directors Australia agree literacy and numeracy is a problem, but said it is a problem across the entire workforce.
The Federal Government has started a new literacy program for apprentices.(ABC News: Alison Branley)
And while it is a schooling issue, Mr Robertson said TAFEs have a role to play.
“We don’t really fund that or put that into training package requirements and nor is it measured, nor is it regulated,” he said.
The Federal Government says it started a new literacy program for apprentices, which began in May.
Mr Elphinstone said he also receives fewer visits from TAFE staff, which he said means they do not stay as up to date with industry trends.
And then there is the equipment.
Braiden Garbowski has just finished a four-year apprenticeship with the manufacturer and said he learned most of his skills on the job.
The high-end CNC lathe he uses is a far cry from the one he trained on at TAFE.
“It [the TAFE machine] is probably from the seventies, I’d say,” he said.
In a statement, TasTAFE chief executive Jenny Dodd said metals facilities would be considered as part of the suite of areas for upgrade.
Fears of a return to the bad old days
The Productivity Commission has handed down an interim report looking at Australia’s skills sector.
But already many are concerned it is being used to pave the way to a return to marketisation of Australia’s training industry.
Between 2013 and 2017, more than $5 billion of taxpayer money went to the federal training loan scheme called VET-FEE-HELP after it was opened up to private providers.
It saw many students sold overpriced diploma-level courses with the lure of incentives like free laptops.
But many courses were not up to scratch and vulnerable students were saddled with HECS-style government debts that had to be forgiven by the Australian Tax Office.
Lines from the Productivity Commission’s interim report such as: “Failures were a symptom of poor policy design and implementation, rather than a failure in the concept,” have raised the ire of industry experts.
“We are gravely concerned,” Ms Haythorpe said.
“It certainly highlights a focus towards increased contestability of funding, more private provision of vocational education, increased student loans and voucher system. This is not the way to go.”
Her concerns are echoed by TAFE Directors who maintain they do not oppose private training, but are concerned that opening up the market too much is fraught.
“It hasn’t really sought to learn the lessons from what happened with the VET-FEE-HELP and other sort of open market programs,” Mr Robertson said.
Senator Cash said they had been trying to restore confidence in the sector since then and had re-credited $1.5 billion in government loans for dodgy courses to students.
She said they had an $18 million plan to improve regulation in the training sector that included a new National Skills Commission that was looking at the price of training courses, and established the National Careers Institute along with pilot Skills Organisations.
“All governments will work in partnership to ensure effective controls are in place,” she said.